Court Battles

Supreme Court agrees to hear challenge to affirmative action in higher education

The Supreme Court on Monday agreed to hear a challenge to the use of race in college admissions decisions, teeing up a potentially landmark showdown over affirmative action in higher education. 

The case arose after a conservative-backed group, Students for Fair Admissions (SFFA), sued Harvard and the University of North Carolina, alleging the schools illegally discriminate against Asian American applicants.

The court’s announcement came in a brief order without noted comment or dissent. The cases, which have been consolidated, are expected to be heard during the court’s next term, which begins next fall. 

The move rebuffed the Biden administration, which last month had asked the justices to turn away the challenge to Harvard University, arguing that the school’s admissions practices were lawful. 

Harvard, in court papers, denied that its policy is discriminatory. The school accused SFFA of a brazen attempt to upend decades of precedent allowing schools to promote on-campus diversity by considering the racial makeup of their student bodies.

“Having failed to make the case that Harvard’s admissions practices contravene the court’s precedents governing the use of race in admissions, SFFA asks the court to overthrow them,” Harvard wrote in a filing last May. “But SFFA offers no legitimate justification for such an extraordinary step.” 

SFFA alleges that Asian American applicants are held to a higher academic standard than other students. The group argues that Asian Americans are disadvantaged in the application process due to receiving lower “personal ratings” and are admitted at a lower rate than white applicants despite having higher test scores on average.

SFFA has asked the court to overturn Grutter v. Bollinger, a 2003 decision in which the Supreme Court upheld the right of college admissions boards to factor in applicants’ race in order to benefit minority groups and enhance diversity. 

“Grutter’s core holding — that universities can use race in admissions to pursue student-body diversity — is plainly wrong,” the group wrote in its petition for appeal. The challengers say their case against Harvard’s policy gives the court an “ideal vehicle” for reevaluating its stance on affirmative action given the school’s outsize role in past rulings. 

In 2019, a Boston-based federal judge rejected SFFA’s bid, finding Harvard’s admissions program was lawful. That decision was affirmed by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 1st Circuit, prompting SFFA’s appeal to the Supreme Court.  

The group lodged a similar complaint against admissions practices at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, one of the country’s top-rated public universities. The challengers lost in a federal district court and, on appeal, skipped over an intermediate federal court and petitioned the Supreme Court directly.

Updated at 10:28 a.m.

Tags Affirmative action Supreme Court

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